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Dance of the Seven Headed Mouse

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Laura Bonarrigo and Maya Simkowitz
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

So severe is the grief coursing through Elly, the middle-aged Fifth Avenue mom at the irregularly beating heart of Carole Gaunt's new drama Dance of the Seven Headed Mouse, that she can't even live in the present. This suave and savvy speechifier, who's not wanting for political aspirations and connections, is so distraught about the death of her 15-year-old daughter, Molly, that she can only picture her as the young girl at the center of The Nutcracker: innocent and unspoiled, yet ready to confront danger. The foundation for Elly's problems is that she can't stop bending reality to match that vision, regardless of how life insists otherwise.

Audiences attending Christopher McElroen's production of Gaunt's play at the Beckett Theatre will understand her plight. A fair amount of the show, and Laura Bonarrigo's intense but unsteady performance as Elly feel dedicated to suggesting that the actual should always be subservient to the fantastic - or, if you prefer, that the truth should always succumb to the convenient. Despite a potent premise and rock-solid intentions, this prevents the show from coalescing into the searing drama that should be automatic.

This is a common fault of message plays, in which the playwright considers making a statement more important than delivering a memorable plot and compelling characters. The burning question here is not whether Elly will reconnect with her husband, Kevin (Joseph Adams), or her boarding-school-dropout daughter, Avril (Lauren Currie Lewis), who are as consumed with trying to survive Molly's death as they are trying to hold Elly together. No, the central concern whether Elly will get the help she needs to end her continual suicide attempts and drug and alcohol abuse, so she overcome her depression and resume a normal life.

Gaunt has boldly outlined Elly in that way, and generally avoided the temptation to make her a stereotypical pill-popper. This is a smart, sophisticated woman with a public image to maintain, and Gaunt realizes that requires a subtler, behind-closed-doors touch. The other characters have not received similar treatment, however. Kevin's work demands almost constant travel, because Avril has never thought her mother loved her as much as she loved Molly, and because Avril's visiting friend Juliana (Molly Ephraim) represents everything Elly detests: They're more schematic creations than they are people, figures who serve a dramatist's need more than a dramatic one.

So the writing grips only on the rare occasions Gaunt allows the characters to directly grapple with their demons and each other. A late showdown between Elly and Avril, for example, ends with desperate knife play and harrowing omissions that fan the flames of a family in crisis, but that's more the exception than the rule. Details are so scant about who these people are and specifically why they hurt that everything eventually develops the patina of a Lifetime movie of the week. This play may push all the right buttons, but it never does so in original, or unexpected ways. (It's more than a little reminiscent of David Lindsay-Abaire's 2006 Broadway play on a similar subject, Rabbit Hole, if less openly manipulative.)

The same is true of Bonarrigo. She works feverishly to clean out Elly's polluted nooks and crannies, presenting her anguish as it may appear in a woman who's forgotten how to feel. But her ultra-brittle performance makes the high-society Elly seem distant rather than destroyed, the wallflower at a cocktail party rather than a defeated hostess putting on a brave face. Her harsh, almost astringent, take on the character makes it difficult to sympathize with her; that she frequently seems more callous than crushed makes you seldom want to. Worse, there's so little difference between how she appears in the brief first scene (before Molly's car accident) and the others that you're deprived of even the most general sense of how Elly has changed.

Considerably more successful are Lewis and Ephraim, who nicely balance despondency with acceptance, and channel the friction into some powerful moments. Lewis, especially, shines in the final scene, when Avril must duel Elly for control of the family; Avril's confusion, frustration, and determination are palpable, and Lewis's sturdiness under fire lets you glean exactly where she's coming from. Adams nicely embodies Kevin's inattentive, globe-trotting businessman, but not his intimate engagement with either his wife or his daughter; both playwright and actor have too heavily underscored his physical and emotional absence.

But the lack of something else is even more strongly felt. The script is scattered with direct references to The Nutcracker, including appearances by the title character, that have been almost entirely deleted from this production. Whether that a choice from McElroen, who has otherwise smartly staged the play on Tim Hourie's beautifully elaborate penthouse set, or from Gaunt, isn't clear. But it's unfortunate: A more pungent exploration of the link between the family's shattered existence and a little girl's balletic travails would probably better anchor the story as a multiedged tragedy.

All that remains of the conceit is Maya Simkowitz, who plays the young Molly of Elly's memory. Never speaking, and clad in a white tutu (from costume designer Victoria Gaunt), she's the picture of purity, far from the troubled, hard-edged adolescent Elly so fervently resists knowing. Gaunt's own dedication to her cause at the expense of her characters keeps Dance of the Seven Headed Mouse as rooted in place as Elly: For both playwright and mother, the cause is king, but saying less about it would do more to ensure the message consistently hits home.

Dance of the Seven Headed Mouse
Through July 25
Beckett Theater, 410 West 42nd between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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